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Al Franken, the comedian turned politician, should be right at home in Congress, which humorist Will Rogers once described as the greatest collection of his type in the world.
"Every time they tell a joke, Rogers said, ”it becomes a law and every time they pass a law it becomes a joke."
While that probably isn’t an altogether accurate portrayal, considering some of the clowns who have resided in the House and the Senate, it is close enough. Franken, labeled by one wag as "Avalanche Al" because of his 312-vote mandate in the long running Minnesota senatorial election, has been lifted by the media to legislative superstardom for the time being at least because of his potential impact on crucial votes.
When sworn in next week after an eight months struggle that was one of the most expensive in history, he will become the 60th Democratic vote (including two independents who lean that way) — the magic number needed to close off debate and defy any potential Republican filibuster of Barack Obama’s ambitious initiatives. The reality, however, may not be that dramatic in a party already showing signs of divisive wear and tear over such controversial proposals as the climate bill, passed by the House, and the huge make over of the nation’s health care system. Rogers by the way also is credited with the familiar assessment that if one is a Democrat he doesn’t actually belong to any organized political party.
There are enough disparate votes among the majority to still throw a serious monkey wrench into the president’s proposals, including the establishment of a public plan that would compete with the private insurance carriers. That proposal is opposed by four or five Democratic moderates, enough to take it out of the filibuster-proof category and to permit serious GOP delay in adoption of the entire package of reforms.
In addition, Democrats are hampered by the absence of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia whose illnesses have caused them to miss a considerable number of votes. Although Byrd, 91, left the hospital to spend July 4 with his family, observers and Kennedy is recovering from brain surgery, no one expects either to be much available in the coming months.
Franken himself has expressed some resentment at the 60 designation.
"That’s not the way I see it. I’m going to be the second senator from the state of Minnesota and that’s how I see it," he was quoted in the national press.
Critics however weren’t so certain. They argued that if past performance as a political commentator is any indication he is likely to follow the party line on most important issues.
That, of course, is based on the new senator’s penchant for stirring controversy. Although during his long Senate campaign he seemed to eschew some of the fiery rhetoric that marked his radio broadcasts on the Air America network, the former "Saturday Live Night" performer has been viciously critical of the GOP Right and has authored several books in the same vein. But the betting is that Franken will turn his Harvard educated mind toward more temperate criticism as he tries to fit in and learn the ways of what often is called the most exclusive club in the world.
Franken, whose prior appearances in Washington include the featured entertainment for the White House Correspondent’s dinner, is probably going to get a tough initiation. Democrats apparently have been holding a spot for him on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that has a leading role in the struggle to reform health care. In USO tours in Iraq, he formed a close bond with American GIs and has said that he would like to serve on a committee dealing with veterans’ affairs.
Meanwhile, the White House believes that the comedian’s election has taken the president one step closer to assuring unchallenged passage of at least a portion of his agenda. Republicans, although long anticipating that he would be the eventual winner, don’t think there is much to laugh about.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)